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How friendship helped a Vietnam veteran heal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps's Military Voices Initiative, recording conversations between service members and their loved ones. This Veteran's Day, we hear from Private First Class Eben Olrun. He's a Cupi'g Alaska Native who served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. At StoryCorps in Anchorage, he told his son, Owen, how a friendship with another veteran helped him heal from his time at war.

EBEN OLRUN: I never really thought about being in the military till I first saw Audie Murphy and John Wayne acting in a World War II movie. That's what I said. I'm going to be a hero like them. So I ended up in Vietnam. To me, I was in a different world, and I did not want to make any friends 'cause we never knew when anybody would die 'cause of the bullet. It's hard to talk about it. I wanted to forget the memories of what I did, and I started drinking really bad. Alcohol became a best friend for a long time. But I used to go to a group that met at the VA. And Bill Martin came into our combat group in the evening. The first time I ever saw him, he reminded me of General Custer.

OWEN OLRUN: Yeah - big mustache.

E OLRUN: Yeah. But he got to know me, and I got to know him. He spent 20 years in the military, and part of it was in Vietnam.

O OLRUN: You and Bill helped keep each other sober.

E OLRUN: Yeah, and if I needed help, I would call him and talk to him. And he always listened. You know, after I came back, I was expecting parades, but it was just different, calling us baby killers. And so for a long, long time, I was ashamed to be a Vietnam veteran. But me and Bill Martin, we went to powwows. And the first time, I was really honored for returning from Vietnam was a powwow in Fairbanks. And I was asked to carry one of the flags, and he was standing next to me. He was comforting me.

O OLRUN: It's OK.

E OLRUN: Thank you.

O OLRUN: When was the last time you saw Bill Martin?

E OLRUN: It was, like, four or five years ago. He had to fight cancer a couple of times, and when his cancer came back the third time around, he said, I'm not going to go through that again, so - I miss him.

O OLRUN: You know, I remember Bill Martin as someone who always wanted to bring joy into people's lives.

E OLRUN: That's why he was family. Uncle Bill was your uncle. And we were brothers that can't be separated. I miss him very much. He made me feel special.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Eben Olrun with his son, Owen. Owen wanted to hear about his father's time in the military because he's considering joining himself.

E OLRUN: Why do you want to join the military?

O OLRUN: Well, I looked up to you and Bill for your service, and I wanted to do things with my life that I thought were more important than myself.

E OLRUN: Well, like I told you before, I will support whatever your decision is.

O OLRUN: Thanks a lot.

E OLRUN: You'll always have a special place in my heart. Don't matter how old you get to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That's Vietnam veteran Eben Olrun with his son, Owen, at StoryCorps in Anchorage, Alaska. Their interview was recorded in partnership with Alaska Public Radio. It's archived in the U.S. Library of Congress. This season, NPR and StoryCorps invite you to interview a loved one as part of the Great Thanksgiving Listen. You can find more information at thegreatlisten.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Max Jungreis